Saturday, 30 August 2008

Panta Rei: My Grandpa's Rags-to-Socialist Glory Tale of War and Peace

My grandpa was an economist. He was recently mentioned by a former student - now a middle-aged magazine columnist - in a piece for Dani, a popular political weekly in Bosnia; this inspired me to write a few words about him. The above photo is of him and my grandma - my mom's parents - in Bosnia circa '68.

My grandpa was born in Donje Selo, a small village near Konjic, in Herzegovina, the southern bit of Bosnia-Herzegovina. This is a region known for its rugged, craggy landscape of rocky mountains and wild deciduous and evergreen forests dotted with limestone plateaus - and some very stubborn people.

Konjic, Bosnia-Herzegovina

Back in those days (between the world wars) and in that social milieu, education was not valued very highly; my great-grandpa preferred to have his children tending the sheep and goats rather than studying and doing homework, so my grandpa had to just take a book along when doing his chores around the pasture. Sometimes the goats chewed up his books, or the odd greasy page of homework.

As the village school only had two grades, education typically ended around age 9, and this was the fate of my grandpa's brothers and sisters. It was the village teacher who convinced my great-grandpa to send my grandpa to the city to be schooled further. This was initially arranged with some cousins in Mostar, who provided him with room and board in exchange for chores around the house; later he got his own place and supported himself by tutoring younger children in mathematics.

He graduated from the gymnasium (high school) in Mostar in 1942, and promptly joined Tito's communist partisans.

People from Herzegovina, as I said - and Bosnians in general - are known to be very stubborn, or 'hard-headed' (literally and figuratively); so it is no surprise that almost all the key battles on the Yugoslav front in WWII took place in and around this area. It is also notable that Yugoslavia was liberated with little or no direct British, American, or Soviet involvement and spawned the first, largest, and most successful resistance movement in WWII - a ragtag multi-ethnic band of Serbs, Croats, Muslims, Jews, men and women, unified under the command of Marshal Tito. By the end of the war they numbered around 650,000 combatants, of which around 100,000 were women (impressive representation for any army, even by today's standards).

"Death to fascism-freedom for the people."

They won in spite of seven major German offensives, over 1 million civilian and military casualties (the second-highest in Europe, after Poland), mass executions, ruthless Nazi 'anti-terrorist' tactics, and the combined anti-Partisan efforts of the Wehrmacht, the SS, fascist Italy, Croatian nationalist Ustaše, Serbian nationalist-royalist Chetniks, as well as Hungarian and Bulgarian collaborationist forces. Phew!

According to historians, the partisans' ideological appeal - which cut across ethnic and gender lines - was a key competitive advantage in terms of morale and popular support for the struggle.

My grandpa was wounded in the Battle of Neretva, the 4th Anti-Partisan Offensive. There is an Oscar-nominated feature film about it, starring Yul Brynner and featuring an original poster by Picasso. In the battle, the far-outnumbered, under-nourished and ill-equipped partisans manage to thwart the Nazis' aims by an elaborate and very clever ruse. It is a true modern-day David and Goliath story.

My grandpa carried to his grave (at age 82) several pieces of shrapnel in his chest from the injury. During the 1992-95 war in Bosnia, which we both spent mostly under siege in Sarajevo, my mom teased him saying he must be bulletproof, what with all that metal in his body... It never gave him trouble though, and he never had any health problems until prostate cancer hit him in his late 70s. (That should make you wonder about all the chemicals generations since have ingested that our grandparents weren't exposed to.)

After WWII he was appointed president of an administrative court in Konjic, although he had no legal training, or any kind of post-secondary education for that matter; the Party just didn't have enough qualified personnel.

It was there that he met my grandma, Olga, who was a middle class city girl from Trebinje and had also taken part in the underground resistance during the war, as part of a SKOJ unit in Mostar. SKOJ (pronounced SKOY) was the youth wing of the partisans, and stands for Savez komunističke omladine Jugoslavije, or Communist Youth League of Yugoslavia.

My grandma Olga (right) with a friend and fellow resistance member in Mostar, 1942. The Nazi Scourge had never yet encountered such a tough nut.

She was the court secretary, and according to my grandpa, regularly paid secret home visits to the pre-war judge whom my grandpa had replaced - a trained professional from the Kingdom of Yugoslavia - to get tips on handling cases, which she passed on to my grandpa. It would have been a disaster had the Party got wind of their scheme.

Sadly, my grandma died when I was about seven years old, so my memories of her are very vague and infused with an aura of childhood ethereality. I do know that throughout their marriage she teased my grandpa mercilessly for his peasant ways, on account of certain habits he just never could shake, I guess. "Peasant!" she cried. (Or, "Seljak!" in Bosnian/Serbo-Croatian.)

Olga and Momir circa 1947, near Konjic, with my aunt Dubravka as a baby.

As a public official in charge of the Jablanica dam construction project, my grandpa was responsible for the flooding of the Neretva valley, including the orchard that my dad grew up in with his aunt. (I'm not kidding) This is about twenty years before my parents met while they were both studying philosophy at the University of Sarajevo; they only later discovered the coincidence. And yes, it's the same river on which my grandpa was wounded in battle.

Prior to the flooding my great-aunt, Danica - we called her 'grandma' because my dad was an orphan and she pretty much raised him - made a living selling the apples and pears in her orchard. Every year she loaded the produce on a truck and took it to the market in Dubrovnik, on the Croatian coast. My dad talked about evenings spent reading or just hanging out in her attic, laying on a bed of apples.

When they evacuated the valley, she was given a cramped flat in Konjic as compensation. The rest of her working life she spent as a waitress, which certainly didn't help the varicose veins she ceaselessly complained about in old age. (Before she died, though, she passed on to yours truly her best-kept secret - her recipe for šape, the tastiest mold-baked walnut cookies ever.)

After a couple of years working for the court, my grandpa enrolled in classes at the Faculty of Law, University of Belgrade. The Party considered this a bourgeois move, and reprimanded him. Despite this he continued his studies, because he figured the Stalinist mood wouldn't last, and that the country would need a trained professional cadre. He was soon proved right when Tito broke with the Soviet Union in 1948.

As the kind of work he eventually did in government mostly had to do with the economy, at some point he completed a PhD in economics and became a full-blown economist. He later worked at the UN for a few years, in Iran and Indonesia, before taking up a teaching post at the university of Sarajevo. My mother claims that somewhere she has a photograph of him meeting Indian president Jawaharlal Nehru on a state visit, however I have yet to see it. (Yugoslavia became part of the non-aligned movement during the Cold War - the only European country to do so - and had strong ties to other non-aligned countries)

Among many crazy stories from that time that come to mind, one that my mom once told me was of the two of them driving through the desert to Tehran when she was about 18. My grandpa hadn't slept and the journey was long; my mom couldn't drive. Nonetheless, since the road through the desert was pretty much straight for hundreds of miles, he put her at the wheel and fell asleep. Hours later, the city emerged from the dunes like a mirage...

Once, while on a Ford Foundation fellowship lecture tour in the US, extolling the virtues of Yugoslav self-management, my grandpa was blacklisted and later barred from entering the United States. He eventually cleared that up with the help of his friend, the American Ambassador in Jakarta. Yugoslavia wasn't part of the Soviet bloc, but it was a socialist country...

The McCarthyite censors must have gotten spooked when they realized the idea of workers councils voting on management decisions in non-state but socially-owned and run enterprises - something between workplace democracy and institutionalized/constitutional unionism - might actually sound kind of nice to populist American ears. You can't really dismiss that as 'evil empire' stuff. At the same time, I can think of no better real-world embodiment of Marx's 'factories to the workers' premise. (The fact that it was screwed up reflects more than anything the incompetence of generations since who inherited this great idea...)

One summer at the seaside, my grandpa gave me a swimming lesson. He pushed me off into the deep water with my inflatable, which he had first unplugged, so that the air would slowly escape as I got further and further out. Needless to say my parents were horrified, as I struggled to stay afloat kicking and screaming, but looking back on it I kind of like the guy for that.

At other times, us kids climbed on his back and rode him like a donkey, so it wasn't all that one-sided.

From left to right: grandpa, my brother Igor, me, and my cousin Jelena.

One long-time colleague of his referred to him as 'Moby Dick' - because he "swam alone". I wonder what it must have been like for him to see another war at home, having lived through WWII already and having grown up in the aftermath of WWI. I never got to ask him that, or at least I don't remember him ever talking much about it. (Though he was quite keen on reminiscing about a lot of other things, in particular our family history.)

We left Sarajevo together two years into the siege, in 1994. Although there was a ceasefire, only those too old or too young to join the army were allowed to leave. After being delayed just outside of Sarajevo in the town of Visoko for two days, we spent another 2 days on the bus to Zagreb, usually a 10-hour journey. I vomited a lot by the end of it.

After a couple of weeks staying with friends in Zagreb, my sister and I joined him at his house in Orebić, on the Dalmatian coast.

It was a welcome change for all of us, except when he and I argued; we were all pretty stressed out and traumatised by the war, I suppose.

One day, he took me out fig-picking. There were some figs in our yard and some neighbours also kindly offered theirs. I climbed trees and picked the figs and handed them to him, and he put them in a basket. We took them home and he made a horrible jam out of them - so hard you could stick a knife into it and it would stand up straight. It was practically sugar candy, and the taste was awful. He made us eat it for breakfast - there were jars and jars of it - until even he couldn't handle it any more and agreed to buy some decent jam from the shop. He was just no good at cooking, and he finally had to accept it.

Anyway, so there was this piece in Dani by the columnist Svetlana Cenić, a former student of his. In the column she recounts an anecdote that might get you, the odd reader, to appreciate my grandpa - and the note of socialist self-criticism - even more than you already do (my translation):

"I remembered my professors who even in those days debunked the demagoguery of power...I remember well what Momir Ćećez once told a colleague of mine, who during an oral exam stood on all fours to unreservedly sing the praises of the economic system of SFRJ [Socialist Yugoslavia]... Professor Ćećez then asked her what her mother says when she comes back from the market. Confused, my colleague replied that her mother curses, swears, moans about high prices, and so forth; at this the professor, handing back her indeks [a marking booklet], simply informed my colleague that while mother would most certainly have passed the exam, her daughter, at least in this term, would not."

Yep, that sounds like grandpa. A hard-nosed old bastard he was, but we loved him. And he had a point - he wanted critique. You kiss ass, you fail. Here's to you, grandpa. I hope that the socialist dream you took all that shrapnel for isn't totally dead, yet.

In Pittsburgh, USA, 1961.Momir Ćećez (10 December 1923-4 June 2006)

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